The pandemic in its wake has bought a flurry of devastating consequences – some visible and some invisible. The official data on active COVID-19 cases and resultant death are only a speck into the devastation that the pandemic has bought in its wake. However, human life is not the only collateral. The pandemic has demonstrated for us the entrenched social inequity, the cleavages of the health system, and the brazen apathy of the capitalist world order. However, what is generally missing from the mainstream media is discussing education and the slippages in academia. As the pandemic enters into the second wave, it is business as usual for most college and university students.
Digital Divide and Diluted Learning
Most disasters in their wake bring a halt to all that is characteristic of daily life. Yet a pandemic, given its endemic nature, robs people of any breaks from the mundane acts of everyday life, leaving little time to recuperate with the loss that they suffer. Like most other activities, learning had continued uninterrupted except for the nationwide lockdown when most institutions were caught unaware and hence had no plan of action to ensure the continuation of education. However, the advent of digital learning for most students and teachers bought in its wake new challenges and obstacles that mostly remain undiscussed.
While an Oxfam survey presented a bird’s eye view on what the pandemic has meant for school students—in both the private and public sector, the disruption of learning and research for university and college students remains underreported and largely unexamined.
According to the Remote Learning Reachability of UNICEF, only 24% of Indian households have access to the internet with a wide gender and rural-urban gap: a digital divide that will profoundly access learning in the coming years. A recent survey by Learning Spiral noted that less than 50% of students have access to the internet in rural and urban areas, with schools and universities being the site for most students to access the internet and allied services.
In addition to the rural-urban divide, the UNICEF survey also highlights the class divide in access to education, with the most deficient 40 percent of families accounting for a disproportionately high percentage of those who lack access to remote education. Thus as the pandemic has opened new expansion opportunities for e-tutoring businesses such as Byju, which crossed the valuation mark of USD 1 billion, the marginalised segment has experienced deepening inequalities.
Can students continue to learn as the world crumbles down?
Keeping the digital divide aside, learning during the pandemic has been impacted beyond the limits of infrastructure availability. Students across the spectrum note that homes are not conducive learning spaces. Being detached from peers has meant limited interactions and discussions that are often the pivotal axis of learning in universities and colleges.
Aarushi, a first-year Economic honours student at Delhi University, says, “My subject is so mathematically loaded. Online classes hardly allow me to understand much. Added to that, teachers do not take tutorials. My first semester became quite stressful, so I decided to take tutoring in the subject, but all this has been overwhelming. My workload has increased so much, and I hardly have much time, particularly now when I am recovering from Covid, studying is the last thing I’ve on the mind.” Palak, a first-year B.Com (H) student at Delhi University, concurs, “Studying online is not as fun and exciting as it used to be in physical classes. It is tough to concentrate provided the environment at home is more on the relaxed side which makes me feel lethargic.”
Students across the spectrum are not just reminiscing about the absence of a romanticized college-university life or the limited window of learning now available to them. Most of them are reeling under personal loss from Covid – while some are in the process of recuperating, others are involved in care labour at home. Beyond the academic stress, most students are also struggling to cope with the social disintegration that surrounds them and the engulfing survivor’s guilt that many are experiencing.
Santosh, a Master’s student at Delhi University, remarks, “I sit in front of a screen to attend a two-hour-long lecture, and I try to concentrate on what is being taught, but how can I when the news of people dying is constantly pouring in.” Anne, another student, concurs and notes, “My concentration span has reduced so much. I can hardly focus on what is being taught. The uncertainty and hopelessness of the whole situation are quite overwhelming.”
Grappling with the emotional and psychological trauma aside, most students note that they have been personally impacted in the second wave of Covid-19 with either them or their immediate family being diagnosed. Aarti, another Master’s student at Delhi University, notes that she and her entire family were diagnosed with Covid in April. “I missed two and a half weeks of lectures. Even now, my studies continue to suffer. Being a daughter, there is a lot of pressure of household work too, and coupled with Covid, I’ve hardly had much space to study.” Aarti’s situation also resonates at a global level, with women worldwide spending anywhere between two to ten times on unpaid care work compared to their male counterparts, resulting in grave economic inequality.
Most students pursuing a Master’s at Delhi University express profound exhaustion at the academic calendar planned by the administration. In its attempt at restoring normalcy, it shortened the first year of teaching for these students into six months of teaching summer break in between. Students comment that summer vacations are integral periods of their learning. It allows them time and space to crystallize the year’s learning and develop their perspectives on readings taught. As Santosh, a postgraduate History student, added, “In MA, we have to establish a close relationship with primary sources, we don’t just learn about them as we usually do in our bachelors, in MA we try to understand sources and develop a balanced approach towards readings, and it demands us to think as much as we can. Summer breaks are generally times when we can think and engage sources rightly.”
As both teachers and students reel under the physical, psychological, and emotional impact of the pandemic, education administrative bodies pan-India must break the bureaucratic shells of their functioning and move towards collaborative decision-making models that engage with all stakeholders. It would mean devising models of remote access at the school level that do not rely on internet usage but leverage existing infrastructure – such as radio and television penetration. At the college and university level, the administration should attempt at allowing self-paced teaching and learning goals and devise innovation assessment means that do not rely on singular pen-paper tests and allow multiple assessment opportunities to not disfavour students impacted by Covid. Finally, it is incumbent on all educational institutions to prioritise the psychological health of their students and staff.
The show can take a “break”; it must allow its actors and audiences to recuperate and brace themselves for the tumultuous times on the horizon.
Featured Image Source: Hindustan Times